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One genus of the six species of fan palms, the borassus, or palmyra palm, is a widely cultivated palm tree native to Asia, Africa and New Guinea. Borassus can be identified by its fan-shaped leaves, which can grow to lengths of up to 10 feet (about 3 m). The tree often reaches heights of about 100 feet (30 m), and the lifespan of the tree can be as long as 100 years. The borassus palm is a valuable source of food, lumber and thatching for weaving projects. The inhabitants of the regions where borassus palm trees grow process every part of the tree, and its uses number in the hundreds.
The Asian palmyra palm variety of the borassus is called karpaha, the celestial tree, by natives of Tamil Nadu, India. It is held in high respect because of its versatility and sustainability, and it is the official tree of this state. In Cambodia, borassus is the national flora emblem, with many trees growing around the temple area of Angkor Wat. The borassus has not been very successfully cultivated in North America or Europe because of its sensitivity to cold. Maturity time for the trees make take as long as 20 years.
One of the main aspects of the palmyra palm is as a food source. Young plants are picked, boiled and eaten as a type of vegetable. Meal can be made by roasting and pounding the plant stalks. The seeds and fruit of the mature tree can be processed and consumed in a variety of ways. Javanese sugar, called gula jawa in Indonesia, is produced from the fruit and is widely used in Javanese cuisine.
Wood harvested from the borassus palm tree is almost black in color. Durable, heavy and hard, palmyra palm timber often is used in the construction of wharf pilings. Fibers from the stalks of the tree have been used for fencing and for cordage, because of its strength and durability. The tree sap is used medicinally as a laxative.
In ancient India, the palmyra palm leaves were used as a type of papyrus. After the mature leaves were seasoned and preserved through an arduous process of boiling with turmeric and salt water, the dried leaves were polished with pumice and cut into sheaves of four pages. After being written on, the pages were rolled and tied. Today, the leaves of the borassus mostly provide thatching and weaving material for hats, umbrellas, baskets and mats, giving local residents plenty of raw material to produce merchandise that they can sell in the local marketplace.